Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on March 16, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of Davis & Langdale Company, Inc. and the author. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue for the exhibition William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900): Drawings of a Painter held March 5 - April 2, 1983 at Davis & Langdale Company, New York, NY. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Davis & Langdale Company at either this address or phone number:


William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900): Drawings of a Painter

by John Wilmerding



Alone among the central figures associated with the mature Hudson River school and the luminists, W. S. Haseltine has yet to receive full scholarly investigation. When that comes, it will surely have to take into account his notable accomplishments as a draftsman. Born in Philadelphia in 1835, Haseltine belongs to that city's traditional interest in marine views. This begins with William and Thomas Birch early in the nineteenth century, continues strongly with Haseltine's contemporaries William Trost Richards and James Hamilton, and is ultimately transformed in the next generation by Thomas Eakins. Haseltine shared with his colleagues an intense interest in recording strong clear light as it defined particularly the lines of intersection between sea or land and sky. Stamped in the early years of his artistic maturity by the stylistic inclinations of German academic teaching, his best canvases depended on a clean structure of drawing. Later devoted to living in Italy, Haseltine acquired equally deep feelings for the warm sunlight of the southern European landscape. In shifting combinations, Haseltine's finest and most characteristic work was a fusion of line and light.

Haseltine's interest in precision of recording extended not only to the local character of light but also to a feeling for specific geology, whether along the rockbound coast of New England, the palisades of the upper Hudson River, or the gentler curves of the Delaware valley. Though shaped, in his case, primarily by the Düsseldorf style of meticulous rendering, his approach was reinforced by the influential ideas promulgated after mid-century by John Ruskin and Charles Darwin. The former urged painters to draw with special attention to the distinguishing individual features of nature's elements; Darwin's theories brought to the fore an awareness of organic life and growth in the natural world. As a consequence, artists now travelled through the landscape as scientists, attentive to the different categories of meteorology, geology, and botany. In this regard Haseltine shared with many of his contemporaries -- among them John F. Kensett, Asher B. Durand, John F. Casilear, Jervis McEntee, and Sanford Gifford -- a similar vision, and with them brought to bear a painstaking craftsmanship in transcribing what they saw to paper.

Few of the present group of drawings have exact dates or titles. Our general knowledge of Haseltine's career comes from the biography published by his daughter Helen Plowden in 1947. From her account of his movements between America and Europe, and from her notations of tentative locations on many of these sheets, we may make approximate subgroupings by period and subject. The largest number of related works appears to have been executed in the 1860s on the New England shore, many near Nahant, Massachusetts, a favorite area for Haseltine. Most of these are devoted to the varied rocky outcroppings extending along a beach into the background, in turn set off by one sharp pencil line indicating the horizon. Several depicting a large offshore ledge look as if they were done at Indian Rock on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Alfred Thompson Bricher had painted this well-known promontory in the summer of 1871, and the following year Francis A. Silva and Haseltine also painted views of this rock from similar vantage points. Haseltine's in particular became popularized as an engraving for a book on American scenery, Picturesque America, edited by William Cullen Bryant and published in 1872.

A few of the drawings were done and titled at Mount Desert Island, Maine, with the higher rising cliffs and stands of evergreen typical of that more rugged part of the coast. One is most likely a view of Thunder Hole, a gorge on the south shore of the island. His colleague from the Tenth Street Studio in New York, Frederic Edwin Church, as well as the Bostonian Fitz Hugh Lane had visited Maine periodically during the 1850s, producing some of their most compelling landscapes there. During the next decade others followed, including Sanford Gifford and Bricher along with Haseltine. A comparable trio of drawings almost certainly shows the Hudson River Highlands, less open views but similar in their concentration on bold headlands rising up from the water's edge. Yet another three -- a couple with inscriptions locating them at Belvidere on the Delaware -- are distinguished by their more obviously pastoral and picturesque vistas characteristic of the mid-Atlantic reaches. One drawing identified as being done in central New England at Lenox, Massachusetts, captures the details of shrubbery and boulders near a roadside split-rail fence which call to mind the contemporary drawings of Kensett, Casilear, and McEntee. Together, these illustrate that Haseltine's draftsmanship belonged very much to the manner of his time, even as he sought to record his own personal responses to this scenery.

In turning to Haseltine's European drawings, one finds an increasingly greater variety of subject and experimentation with color. A handful of sheets would seem to depict woodland views in the Swiss landscape, and these are heightened or finished with watercolor and washes. For one showing San Giorgio in Venice and another of a hillside monastery in the eastern Mediterranean, Haseltine employed blue paper and bright gouaches for the architecture. Replacing his interest in the geometric masses of New England rock ledges was his attention in Europe to its distinctive architectural monuments, whether the Renaissance churches of Venice, medieval battlements of Mont St. Michel, or Roman ruins at Taormina in Sicily. These last were the subject of one of his most detailed renderings, and provided the basis for at least two canvases with Mount Etna looming behind.

While Haseltine's manner tended to become somewhat more coloristic and painterly in his later work, his compositions remained fairly consistent: usually open expanses of water or sky set off by a foreground panorama of rock formations, castles, or hillsides. In the New England drawings especially he frequently ruled off the horizon line a quarter or half way down his page from the top. His medium mostly through the 1860s and seventies was pencil or pen on white, tan, or pale green paper. For shadows and volume he used touches of wash and pencil hatching, and often in the later drawings added highlights of green or yellow watercolor. At least one of the Massachusetts coast sketches has had the foreground colored, presumably later, and as a rule many of the European views experiment more fully with watercolor. Initially, Haseltine found it sufficient just to make color notations on his linear structure, for example: "water yellowish brown / transparent / stones lighter / distance very faint / trees middle distance redish." One or two bear the statement "Request," presumably indicating a view to be painted on commission.

At his best Haseltine deserves to rank along side his most accomplished friends and contemporaries. His work firmly belongs within the direction of the later Hudson River school and mature luminist painters. Often more confident than the hard manner of Lane or delicacies of Kensett (though not quite up to them as a painter), Haseltine sufficiently understood drawing methods to create both a basis for his finest canvases and solid, sometimes radiant, drawings in their own right.


About the Author

At the time of writing of his essay John Wilmerding was the Deputy Director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. For a biography of the author please see American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection (4/20/04)


Resource Library editor's note

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Michelle Martin Fisher at Davis & Langdale Company, for help concerning permission for reprinting the above text

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